The Significance of the Coronation of Charlemagne
By Monica Fleener
Honours BA Thesis, Western Oregon University, 2005
Introduction: On Christmas Day in the year 800 A.D. Charlemagne, king of the Franks and part of the Carolingian line, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III (795-816). The coronation took place during mass at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome; immediately following the coronation, the acclamation of the people of Rome was heard: “To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peace-giving Emperor, life and victory.” After this proclamation was made three times, the king “was adored by the pope in the manner of ancient princes; and, the title of patricius being dropped, he was called emperor and augustus.” The coronation of Charlemagne created the Holy Roman Empire, which endured until 1806. According to James Bryce, the coronation warrants the classification of the most important occurrence of the Middle Ages. Bryce also views the event as exceptional in that if the ceremony had not taken place, “the history of the world would have been different.”
The reasons behind the coronation were different for both the parties involved. Pope Leo’s motivation for crowning Charles included an opportunity to reward the Frankish king for rescuing him, the need for protection from Roman rebels only an emperor could provide, and the realization that the imperial throne was empty due to the succession of a female, Empress Irene (797-802), in the East. Charlemagne’s assuming of the imperial title was also the only way he could protect the papacy from the Eastern Empire. For Charlemagne, the coronation was an attempt to sanctify the power he had already achieved, and an opportunity to become equal in power and prominence with the emperor in the East. The event was also an occasion for the king to become an emperor (although not necessarily a Roman emperor), thus satisfying his imperial ambitions. The coronation of Charles may also have facilitated the absorption of the Saxons into his empire.
This paper examines the possibility that the coronation of Charles indicated the beginning of Europe by analyzing the contemporary accounts of the coronation, discussing the interpretation of these sources by secondary historians, and providing a conclusion on the coronation’s role in the foundation of Europe. As the events are described in the primary sources and interpreted by historians, the significance of the coronation originates from Charlemagne’s restoration of the Roman Church, which indicates a strengthening relationship between the Church and the secular power in the West and a corresponding deteriorating relationship between the Eastern and Western parts of the Empire. The separation of the East from the West made the establishment of Europe possible.